“He who takes offense when no offense is intended is a fool, and he who takes offense when offense is intended is a greater fool.” Brigham Young, in between saying plenty of pretty offensive things.

I’m in an online group for women who share my calling in the church, and at various times, individuals pose dilemmas they are facing in their ward, and ask one another for advice in how to handle tricky problems. One that came up recently was a story about someone who had accidentally offended a sister in the ward and then apologized, but the sister was still upset, maybe with her, but also with some others in the ward who had been more thoughtless and had not apologized.

I was shocked, but probably shouldn’t have been, by the responses of the majority of these church-active sisters. Most of them were inclined to blame the sister who was offended and completely exonerate the sister who apologized. They said that clearly this offended sister was sinful, weak, on her way out of the church, in the clutches of Satan, and that too many people are too thin-skinned in the church and in society now, that they just need to get over it, and if they don’t, they are apostate and bad. They are cutting themselves off from blessings by choosing to feel offended, and it was best to just move on and forget them. They felt that the offending sister had gone above and beyond by apologizing (although making it clear why she was really in the right in her mind), and that should be enough.

When I protested that we needed to remember we know nothing of this absent “offended” sister, and that we should try to understand her situation to know why she felt as she did, I was immediately accused of being offended myself! It was mind-blowing! I was just calling for some empathy and reflection.

“Then said he unto the disciples, It is impossible but that offences will come: but woe unto him, through whom they come!” Luke 17:1

Yes, we should forgive. We should not be easily offended. But much more importantly in this church–we should quit rationalizing our own offensive behavior and lack of empathy. These are the cultural tics we have developed, a knee-jerk defensive reaction against taking any responsibility for the way the things we say and do affect other people. It’s a problem at the institutional level, and it’s at least as prevalent among the membership.

In Jim Collins’ landmark leadership book Good to Great, he talks about the mirror and the window, stating that great leaders look in the mirror when things go wrong and through the window when things go well. They take blame for mistakes and downturns, but they are generous and humble, recognizing their luck and the contributions of others, with successes and windfalls. When it comes to people being offended, a thing that goes wrong in relationships, church members are much more prone to blame the offended person and much less likely to look in the mirror to reflect on their own actions. We talk about being offended like it’s a temptation, a choice, a character flaw. We call things “being offended” just so we don’t have to acknowledge our mistakes. We use it to avoid the heavy lifting of empathy and admitting we might be wrong. We use it to dismiss people who threaten our sense of justification.

We should instead start from the assumption that a person who is offended is acting in good faith and has a rational reason for being upset, hurt or offended. Someone being offended isn’t a threat. It’s an invitation to listen and understand. It’s an opportunity to show that we care more about others than we do about our own fragile ego.

What more is going on with that person? Why are they upset? What do they know that I don’t know? How is their experience different than mine? What is the rest of the context of their feelings? How are people they care about affected? Is this the straw that broke the camel’s back? Once we stop taking it personally (because we fear being seen as a bad person), once we quit making it about ourselves and care about them as a person, we can actually heal the breach and deserve the forgiveness of the one we’ve wronged.

The process that usually happens goes like this: 1) I’m afraid someone doesn’t like me, 2) I seek like-minded supporters who will tell me why I’m right and good and the person who doesn’t like me is bad or “easily offended,” 3) lather, rinse, repeat. Thus I don’t change my behavior, and my negative view of that person is confirmed when they avoid me (or leave the church). I can cluck my tongue about how easily offended other people are and assure myself that if it hadn’t been me, it would have been someone else. You’re welcome.

A slightly better, but still not great approach is to apologize while excusing our own behavior to try to show that person why you were right to do what you did, and to get them to see why they are being so unreasonable to be upset with you. As one of my bosses wisely observed, “When you’re explaining, you’re losing.” I say it’s still better because while it’s defensive, at least there’s a conversation with the person, not just about the person. But it’s still a very “me” centered approach. Rather than talk about your hurt, let me convince myself why I’m an OK person.

A healthier, more Christ-like approach would be: 1) feel concern for the other person who is upset or hurting, 2) imagine why they might feel that way, 3) listen to them to understand their situation and see if there is anything you can do to help, 4) be their champion in any way you can in future–become their supporter, their friend, while keeping confidences, 5) don’t require them to make you feel better or to forgive you. Apologize freely without conditions.

Is this the same across all denominations?

  • Do you agree this is a blind spot for church members? If so, why? If not, why not?
  • How can the church do a better job of modeling empathy?
  • Are other church-going people like this to this degree?